Icon, maker or lux?

Regular readers will know that I spend a lot of my collecting energy trying to spot patterns in my own behaviour, interrogating why I buy, keep and sell the pens I do. It’s resulted in scoring methodologies and taxonomies aplenty.

I have a new one for you today, one that has been nagging at me for a while. I basically wanted to answer the question why don’t I hang on to wonderful midrange or mainstream pens?

The latest example, which is staring me in the face, is the Esterbrook Estie: a pen that I enthuse about regularly. It’s a great pen, pretty, well built, reliable and easy to use, comfortable, and sold by a company that I think engages wonderfully with its communities (eg through its specialist nib offers, and artisan resins).

But no matter how much I like pens such as the Estie, they somehow don’t (so far) stick in my collection long term.

In the past I’ve put it down to, basically, snobbery: anything ‘affordable’ and steel-nibbed goes in a second tray or gets sold.

But that’s not quite it. My collection isn’t all super-high-end pens that you have to handle with white gloves.

So I dug in a little bit more and started to notice my ‘keepers’ falling into three clusters, with relatively little overlap and some repeatability.

Cluster one: Icons

Into this category I put the Montblanc 149, Lamy 2000, Pilot Capless and Visconti Homo Sapiens.

These are well-known, well-respected designs that have been available for a long time nearly unchanged: to me, they’re timeless. They may have pioneered a new aesthetic or defined a category.

They’re not automatically the most expensive products in their brand’s lineup, the fanciest or the rarest. There are plenty of them knocking around. But they’re the flagship, the ambassador, the ones that most purely express their purpose.

There are probably plenty of iconic designs that I don’t appreciate — eg I found the Rotring 600’s cap mechanism infuriating — but these ones make up the backbone of my collection. It wouldn’t be complete without one.

Cluster two: Makers

Into this category I put my Schon DSGN full-size pens, Kasama Una, Desiderata Soubriquet, and Santini Giant.

To me ‘makers’ is not about every pen turner with a stick of Brooks resin. To be part of this group you need a distinctive visual identity, and a drive to experiment, powered by a single mind. The materials may be unusual, the output sporadic and small-batch, but it’s the idiosyncrasy that appeals to me.

Ian Schon has a small team now, but the engineered aesthetic and radical transparency of his process, the pace of his releases, is very personal. The guys from Kasama pop up every now and again with a batch of crazy Unas or Talas, deeply tied to their local community. Desiderata and Santini drive to do everything in-house, with Pierre making his own pistons, analog-style, and Santini making their own nibs. You see their faces on their websites.

Capillaris would undoubtedly fall into this category too. Mayfair pens, with those crazy shapes. Karas, which even at scale retains a personal touch. Gravitas, with relentless innovation and clear DNA.

Cluster three: Lux

Into this category I put the Urushi Sailor King of Pen, Otto Hutt designC, Montblanc Martele, Leonardo Cuspide, Onoto Magna Sequoyah Custom.

The final category I’ve been struggling to name. I don’t want to call them luxury pens, or fine writing, because that implies that the other categories are not. But the pens in this category have that something special: opulent materials, rarity, exceptional engineering. If I didn’t use them every day, I might call them occasion pens. It’s not about price, it’s about perfection. These are the flipside of the ‘icon’ discussion: they’re not the readily available, timeless flagships like the black precious resin 149 or makrolon Lamy 2000. If I had the money, this would be where the Urushi Lamy Dialog went, while the 2000 sits at the other end of the tray.

If I still owned them, my Nakayas and Namikis would fit in here too.

Untangling the knots

I’m not sure if it’s a problem or not, but there are pens that fit into multiple categories. My new Onoto Magna Sequoyah — well, it’s easy to argue that as well as being a lux pen due to its sterling trim and large gold nib, the ‘basic’ Magna qualifies as an iconic design with real heritage. The Montblanc Martele, a lux pen with its opulent hammered silver finish, would in black resin incarnation be an iconic 146.

And there’s a whole category of makers (in my sense) that specialise in this ultra lux world: Hakase with their manual lathe and rare horn material, Danitrio with their Japanese eyedroppers, Oldwin (in theory, at least), and the Santini Giant probably fits in too.

What I haven’t seen yet is a Maker pen that’s also clearly Iconic. Maybe if we give it another decade.

So what?

As with all these taxonomies and mental models, they’re really only useful for how they unlock new patterns of thinking. I find this trio of categories, and the resulting Venn diagram, has helped me to answer two very important questions:

How and why does my small tray collection contain such a diversity of pens? Is there method to the chaos or am I just indiscriminate?

What is it that appeals to me about certain pens, and not others? Why do some great pens just not fit?

And so now I can see that the Estie, or the Lamy Dialog CC for another example, doesn’t fall into any of the three buckets, even though I believe them both to be great pens. They’re mass-market, anonymous; they have no personal maker vision. They’re not iconic landmark designs, little pieces of history. And there’s nothing luxurious or rare about them that makes them feel indulgent, special. Without one of those three hooks, I struggle to feel a connection to even the best pens in the long term — or at least to justify a spot in my tray.

What about you? Do you see any flaws in my thinking? Let me know in the comments.

Prefer a video discussing this topic? Here you go.

10 thoughts on “Icon, maker or lux?

  1. Love your taxonomy here. Made me think “Timeless, Innovative, Exquisite”. Also, interesting to reflect on why some things are uninspiring even when they are exceedingly competent — perhaps the “personality” behind the “thing”. A good read, as always. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cool stuff again Anthony – I like the original and innovative questions you come up with in analyzing your collection. And this one is a more interesting conceptual (sub)grouping of your pens, i.e. it is not going after the usual visual characteristics as color, material, origin, etc. Like!

    Please allow me an observation however. One, I would assume, so obvious that you very probably heard it before… Are you “collecting” pens, or perhaps a bit more “buying/selling-pens-after-some-personal-use”? Your rotation seems a bit higher than average…don’t get me wrong, I envy the boldness in which you make your analyses, and your decisiveness in executing a departure of a pen. And in many circumstances any “escalation of commitment” must be avoided: Christmas 1914 (it must have been clear that continuation of that war was going to be rather stupid), being in a casino after having lost the money you brought, looking at your share portfolio after a bull or bear phase: one should always look forward and base decisions thereon.

    But “collecting” in its purest meaning should contain somewhat of an element of ownership, usage, admiration, over a certain period of time? Maybe, therefore, you could add another trait for your pens: “expected time in my collection” versus “actual time in my collection”?

    I dunno. This lengthy comment is entirely and utterly tongue in cheek. Although I always feel hurt when you sell an amazing pen that I own myself…

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    • Always interesting to have your contribution Arjen!

      I use the word ‘collection’ but I’ve never liked it. To me a collection is something that’s pinned in a scrapbook, observed but not touched, and it only ever grows in size. Mine is much more fluid and I think about it more like a wardrobe of clothes, or more abstractly as a journey of experiences. I may buy and sell a pen but still have the memories of using it. And for some pens it’s a repeat journey: I’ve had five different 149s, iterating toward the one currently in my tray. Five Lamy 2000s, too. And the Onoto Sequoyah is another good example: should I count ‘time in my collection’ from when I bought the first one, or this second custom version? I feel I have an Onoto slot in my wardrobe, but I have been rotating the exact pen that’s in it over the past several years….

      Longwinded answer, but I think it’s a different conceptual model. The Homosapiens I have today is for me in a direct continuation of the one I bought back in 2018.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Good follow-up! The joy is in the journey, collecting the experiences. I do like that one. And certain journeys are so good that you repeat them – with different experiences of course. Still, with pens, or wardrobe for that matter, I like patina – the item is mine (with physical as well as abstract ownership – meaning why did I buy this particular item and not another one) and the scars to proof it. Selvedge jeans that you need to wear for some time to give it character. Well worn but superbly maintained shoes. A red urushi pen with blue ink stains where the nib unit meets the section. A journal cover that shows all journeys. Etcetera. Your serial monogamy relationship with pens therefore does not perfectly fit into my conceptual model. But I do get it.

        However, the sense of loss, of sad recognition, of betrayal even, remains. You sold some of your pens and I still own them. But now they lack the external confirmation that they are worthy to keep. Since someone (i.e. you) had them and sold them…your Namiki #20, your Nakaya 17mm Portable, your MB Agatha Christie….OK – well – perhaps not with this one, as I also sold mine…

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      • Totally get you on the patina — there is something wonderfully comforting about an object that is visibly worn, faithfully yours. I am in fact wearing a pair of selvedge worn through at the knees right now 😌

        The betrayal, lack of external confirmation… my deepest apologies 😁. If it helps, for me when I sell a pen it doesn’t mean I like it any less. It means perhaps I want something else more, or my needs have changed, or simply that I need £3000 in my account more than I need three pens. I still rate them highly and treasure the memories of having them.

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  3. I wonder how many pen collectors bought their first pen because of the influence of a father, grandfather, teacher, pastor who used a fountain pen and whose influence upon us was pretty strong in several ways.
    I know that is how I began using and collecting fountain pens. Enjoyed your thoughts and conclusions very much Anthony.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very nice article! The icons, makers, lux categories make a lot of sense to me. They are classic or unique in a way you enjoy.

    You got me considering my own collecting habits. Lamy and Sailor pens tend to leave my collection shortly after arriving. The same with mid range Pilot pens. I tend to hang onto low end Pilot pens and $300+ pens. My Pilots and Pelikans being the favorites.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

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  5. Your “why” is always your own. I am fascinated by the array of why’s you chronical for us to consider and test beside our own. Though some people may not be as rigorously introspective, I appreciate your conversations as mine are better anchored because you explore so transparently with us fortunate readers.
    My why’s are: Does it write marvelously in F or EF; Does it balance and feel handle-able in my modest hand; Does it spark my appreciation of masterful elegance or whimsy?
    Currently, these why’s emerge when I check the fathoms of my mind and dare to write them for amendments you all inspire.

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  6. I like these posts of yours where you reflect deeply on your own collecting habits, the most! Your classification of your pens is very thought-provoking, and sounds particularly insightful if we go with Mark Dwight’s names for the categories! My collecting habits are different from yours in that pens I don’t reach for still linger on in my collection, but I am eager to do the same classification on my own pens.

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